Friday, February 22, 2013

Everyman, by Philip Roth

Everyman opens at the funeral of the unnamed protagonist; as the brother and children of the departed speak, we gain a basic framework of his life--born in 1933, the second son of a jeweler and his devoted wife, worked in an ad agency but harbored a desire to paint, married and divorced three times, the father of three.

After this somewhat clunky introduction, we enter the mind of the "everyman" in his last years, as he reflects on his life. He  recalls every medical crisis from his hernia repair as a child to a burst appendix misdiagnosed as "envy" to the recent spate of surgeries to keep his cardiovascular system working. Ironically, the recent frequent hospitalizations have led to envy of his brother Howie, whose robust good health the everyman resents so profoundly that he has stopped talking to Howie (who was in every apparent way an exemplary brother).

His alienation from Howie is hardly unique, as his daughter Nancy is the only real relationship in his life. The everyman (or everyroth as one reviewer dubbed the protagonist) also reflects on his sexual history, right up to his attempt to pick up a twenty-something jogger not long before his death; while he claims to be a "good boy," his sexual history suggests otherwise. His declining health and lack of human relationships contribute to increasing loneliness, a loss of interest in the activity he thought would sustain his retirement--painting, and a sense of deep humiliation about the indignities of growing old. When he considers options for moving from his Jersey Shore senior community to NYC or California to be near family, the lives of those family members make such a move impossible, stranding him in his isolation.

I do not consider myself a prude, but I have always found Roth's depiction of sex off-putting (the liver scene is all I remember of Portnoy's Complaint), and my squeamishness holds in Everyman. That is a minor complaint, however, as Roth's meditation on the cruelty of aging resonates deeply; everyman strikes the reader as a profoundly selfish man, but perhaps that is how we all end our lives.

Favorite passages
Nothing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs, not his painting, not his family, not his neighbors, nothing except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning. My God, he thought, the man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine! No "otherness" to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.

Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.

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